I am currently working on a 2 year project on multiplatform television. Multiplatform might be understood as 2-screen TV experiences or asynchronous programme extensions onto digital media platforms through to voting on celebrity/reality TV shows. The project is based on interviews with industry insiders – from senior execs to below-the-line workers – and is interested in the relationship between multiplatform television, independent digital media and television companies and public service broadcasting. One of the things we’ve been asking producers is how they assess the success of their multiplatform productions. In a post-ratings world and one in which overnight figures are less important, this produces some interesting answers.
By far the most interesting example of success has been in response to Channel 4’s Seven Days, a multiplatform docu-soap production. Set in London’s Notting Hill the format promised to be a new kind of interactive documentary, filming ‘ordinary people’ in their everyday lives and then editing together a one-hour episode each week, as well as releasing clips online, establishing a Twitter feed and a ‘chat nav’ site that allowed viewers to interact with each other and the people filmed for Seven Days. Billed as the ‘next Big Brother’ and supported by a massive marketing campaign, the series inevitably failed to live up to the hype with a small viewership – just 1 million on launch night – dwindling away across the course of the series.
Despite this, Seven Days has been cited as a ‘success’ by many of our interviewees and more broadly in the UK trade press. Paradoxically this is because the amount of users it attracted to the associated online offerings were so big as to crash the C4 servers. Trade magazine New Media Age reported approvingly of the “overwhelming response” to the show, whilst its TV counterpart, Broadcast, described it as “unprecedented” demand.
The failure to build digital infrastructure to support the community of users – which was presumably something far smaller than the 1million watching the broadcast text – has consistently been highlighted as a success. As Matt Locke, acting head of cross platform at C4 argued:
The spike in traffic we saw in the middle of Seven Days was something new – it was an audience realising that they could become part of the conversation, part of the story, part of the lives of the people they were seeing on television.
Despite the problems relating to technology, Seven Days was seen to produce new forms of interactivity. Editor of trade publication Broadcast, Lisa Campbell, enthused that “As far as social experimentation goes, it makes Big Brother look more like Watch With Mother.” This is because of the series’ relationship between social media platforms and programme:
The ‘chatnav’ social media element of the project makes for a fascinating, often surreal watch. So, for example, you’re on a laptop reading comments while watching the show, watching a character on the show on their laptop responding to those comments (still with me?).
Similar comments were made by Matt Locke, series producer Stephen Lambert and others who pointed to both the format’s innovation and the quality of interaction produced in the Seven Days user community: a tech-savvy demographic, highly engaged with the show and its characters – one prominent example included a viewer facebooking a character for a date which, of course, appeared in the following episode.
Digital media and the fragmentation of the broadcast audience by multichannel, multiplatform television has placed the role of ratings in established business models into question. The hype surrounding the failure of Seven Days suggests that new ways of measuring the audience might include attempts to assess the quality of interaction – rather than numbers. Most of our interviewees have commented on such metrics being a key barrier to multiplatform taking off. Whilst many have argued there needs to be a successful TV programme to fuel a multiplatform success, Seven Days suggests how metrics might move beyond page impressions and ratings, and be seen literally in the text: as viewers shape the unfolding narrative and are rewarded for their multiplatform investment in the series.
In this landscape, a failed TV programme, with less than a million viewers, might be a success if it produces measurably engaging forms of interactivity. As one report in Broadcast commented:
The show, we were told, attracted ten times as many web comments as C4’s next most discussed programme … an interesting signal that multiplatform activity is becoming an important currency in the broadcaster’s ratings metrics … I guarantee this will be purposefully aped by other producers.
Our current research, however, suggests that TV remains the dominant in multiplatform productions. If Seven Days is re-commissioned it might suggest new ways of thinking about multiplatform production in the UK. Give its failure to succeed on TV, this remains a big ‘if’ …